My Transformation from an Oil & Gas Geologist to a Climate Warrior by Daniel J. Soeder
My career as a professional geologist started back in the late 1970s when the United States was in the throes of an "energy crisis" brought on by the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo. Since the 1960s, America had been consuming more energy than we produced domestically and imports were used to make up the difference. When the Arab members of OPEC decided to halt oil shipments because of U.S. support for Israel in a Middle East war, it threw the nation and the economy into turmoil.
The immediate impact of the embargo was a steep increase in gasoline prices, severe gasoline shortages, and panic among car-dependent citizens. Lines of vehicles many blocks long formed at service stations that had fuel, and purchases were typically limited to ten gallons (38 liters) or less to prevent hoarding. This was before the internet and smart phones, so the only ways to discover which service stations had gasoline available were announcements on radio stations or by word of mouth. People would sometimes spot a gasoline tanker truck in transit and follow it to a service station. Most citizens were stoic and polite in this era of greater social graces, but if someone tried to cut in line out of turn, all hell could break loose.
In 1973, U.S. oil imports were averaging about 5 to 6 million barrels per day out of a total daily petroleum consumption of about 17 million barrels per day. Of the 30 to 35 percent of the total U.S. oil supply made up of imports, only about half originated in OPEC countries, while the remainder came from non-OPEC sources. Even if all OPEC members had agreed to embargo oil exports to the U.S. (and not all of them did), oil supplies would only have been cut by about 15 percent. The actual supply reduction was closer to 10 percent. Although the U.S. still had 90 percent of its oil supply and the OPEC oil embargo only lasted five months, it precipitated one of the greatest existential crises in American history. It is difficult to overstate just how much trauma, drama, concern, panic, hand wringing, and angst the OPEC embargo caused to the social fabric of the U.S., except perhaps to point out that it influenced American foreign policy for at least the next forty years.
National security demanded that domestic energy resources be found and developed in the United States, and I spent my first decade out of school researching natural gas resources in coal, tight sandstone, and especially shale on projects that were funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In 1988, I wrote a scientific paper on the shale research, which was the first publication to indicate that the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian basin potentially contained significantly more natural gas than DOE and other contemporaneous resource assessments had estimated. There was no workable technology for extracting shale gas at the time, so the paper sat unnoticed in the journal archives for two decades. DOE eventually gave up on shale and I moved on to the nuclear waste site characterization project at Yucca Mountain, and later to groundwater and surface water investigations in the Mid-Atlantic for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
George Mitchell of Mitchell Energy persisted with the shale gas research into the 1990s. Mitchell had been interested in shale for a long time, and with the luxury of owning his own oil and gas company, he continued experimenting for years with methods to produce economical amounts of gas from the Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth basin of Texas. His family, his partners, his investors, and even his own employees thought he was nuts and begged him to stop wasting time and money on shale. By the late 1990s, Mitchell had found that recent advances in directional drilling technology could be applied to construct horizontal wells through shale. These long horizontal boreholes, or “laterals” as they are called, allow wellbores to penetrate several kilometers through a shale unit. In comparison, vertical wells are limited by the formation thickness to a few hundred meters of contact at best. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is done at intervals along the laterals to create high-permeability flowpaths into an enormous volume of rock and produce commercial amounts of natural gas.
Other companies began applying this technology in other basins, and it wasn’t long before Bill Zagorski of Range Resources decided to try it out in Pennsylvania on the Marcellus Shale. He ran across my 1988 paper, which helped to convince him that it could be an excellent resource. The Marcellus Shale is now the single largest gas producing formation in the United States and Pennsylvania is the second largest gas producing state, trailing only Texas. In 2009, the U.S. surpassed Russia to become the number one gas producing country in the world.
I found out about the success of shale gas in 2008 when I started getting telephone calls at the USGS about the 1988 research paper. My formerly obscure paper has now been cited hundreds of times in the shale gas literature. I transferred over to DOE to work on shales once again, but this time I was focused on the environmental effects of production, especially fracking, and wrote a book on the subject. I retired early from DOE and took a position as director of an energy resource program at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, which was primarily focused on oil and gas. I discovered that not many students were interested in oil and gas careers because of climate concerns and job uncertainty in the industry. Program funding was also a challenge. Government agencies and private foundations weren’t putting much money into oil and gas research. The industry was no help either – because of the volatility of oil prices they would promise support one minute and withdraw it the next. When COVID hit, people stopped traveling, and oil prices fell into the basement, including going briefly to zero at one point. One of our major oil company supporters pulled back funding and the other declared bankruptcy. My one remaining student graduated and got a job siting wind turbines. And that was the end of that.
My own feelings on climate had been ambiguous for many years. Of course I was concerned about greenhouse gas (GHG) and climate change, but I still had the “energy crisis” mentality that it was more important for the United States to continue to increase domestic sources of energy, and that meant fossil fuels. There simply wasn’t anything else. The solutions I had heard for addressing climate change were simplistic, impractical, or both. An earnest young man at an environmental conference once assured me that the path forward was to enforce energy conservation and only generate electricity with wind and solar. How then do you manufacture cement and purify pig iron? How do you power a vehicle? How do you provide electricity on calm days or at night?
I had done a bit of research a few years earlier when I was still at DOE on the potential for geothermal energy to be used as a secure energy supply for U.S. military facilities, specifically the WV National Guard training camp. Geothermal for the most part requires hot springs, geysers, or volcanoes but the Earth is hot everywhere if you go deep enough and there were indications that geothermal resources could be tapped in other areas. The DOE study suggested that heat for the National Guard facility could be obtained from the depth of the Marcellus Shale. However, we concluded that if you are drilling to the Marcellus Shale for geothermal, you might as well just use the gas.
I was thinking about geothermal energy for a potential project in South Dakota on a remote tribal reservation and out of curiosity I attended a DOE Geothermal Technology Office (GTO) program review meeting in Denver in 2017 to learn what people were doing. This was the first I had heard about engineered geothermal systems (EGS), which can be deployed just about anywhere to provide large amounts of energy while adding zero GHG to the atmosphere.
Whoever came up with the idea of adapting lateral drilling and staged hydraulic fracturing from the shale gas industry for use on geothermal resources deserves some major accolades. To wit, two parallel horizontal wells are drilled into deep, hot rock and connected by hydraulic fractures. Fluid moves down one well, collects heat from the rocks as it flows through the interconnecting fracture system and returns to the surface via the other well. This was a genius move that made the whole methodology for extracting geothermal heat from “hot, dry rock” at least an order of magnitude more feasible than previous attempts using vertical wells.
I remember coming home from the Denver GTO meeting with a new understanding that while yes, we needed more energy, what we really needed to protect the climate was sustainable, carbon-neutral energy. For the first time I saw a real energy solution in EGS that was likely to work at the scales needed. Maybe it was not THE answer, but it was AN answer, and it was the first one that sounded achievable with existing technology. I crossed the Rubicon on climate as a result of this meeting (better late than never, right?).
Other options became apparent. A solar heat loop could be added to EGS to boost the rock temperature in shallower aquifers, suggesting that a solar-assisted system could increase the versatility of EGS and allow even wider applications. Because EGS can be located anywhere on Earth as long as the drillholes are deep enough to reach hot rocks, these drillholes could be constructed at an existing, coal-fired thermoelectric power plant. Replacing the fossil fuel burner with a geothermal hot loop to make the steam that drives the turbines means that we don’t need to build brand new power plants to decarbonize electricity. The boilers don’t care where the heat comes from, as long as it is the correct temperature (200 to 400 degrees C). Such a move would allow us to decarbonize electricity quickly and cheaply by retaining existing generating and power distribution infrastructure, possibly in less than ten years. This is huge.
In locations where an engineered geothermal hot loop might not work, small nuclear reactors could replace coal burners. These fit into submarines and spacecraft, so why not power plants? New nuclear technology is small, efficient, and can be mass produced in a factory. Surely it can be made to fit under a boiler in an existing power plant and produce as much heat as a coal fire. High efficiency combined cycle (CC) natural gas-fired power plants can be run instead on biogas methane. Both gases have the same chemistry and heating value, but one is derived from fossil fuel and the other is made by microbes from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Burning biogas simply returns the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere from where it came and is carbon neutral.
Would any of this actually work? I don’t know – it needs to be tested and evaluated. However, we do know that it doesn’t defy the laws of physics and obtaining commercial levels of electricity from these energy resources is simply a matter of scaling-up. The economics of retrofitting an existing power plant with a carbon-free heat source has got to be cheaper than abandoning the entire facility and building completely new wind turbine and solar photovoltaic infrastructure. In fact, replacing natural gas with biogas in a CC power plant doesn’t require any modifications at all. Both are composed of methane and the gas burners in the turbine won’t notice any difference.
In my opinion, GTO should be funded with billions and given Manhattan Project type priority to develop EGS as a crash program. What they actually have are millions for one geothermal field test site in Utah and things are moving slowly. Likewise, nuclear technology is suffering from stalled permit and waste disposal issues. These logjams need to be broken by licensing a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (which has no technical issues, only political ones) and by expediting permits for a joint venture between TerraPower and PacifiCorp to build the small but powerful Natrium liquid sodium-cooled reactor. Genetic engineering of methanogens to improve methane output should also be robustly funded along with the design and development of biogas generation facilities. These technologies could decarbonize electricity within a decade, but we have to jump start them with some technical and regulatory advancements. At the moment those are not happening.
Along with ending humanity’s use of fossil fuels that continue to make the climate crisis worse, national governments should support the “geoengineering” technology of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) removal that focuses on reducing the levels of GHG in the atmosphere to pre-industrial conditions. (Obviously this is futile if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels and adding to the problem.) There are a number of different approaches to carbon dioxide removal (CDR), including such things as planting trees that soak up CO2 through photosynthesis, or adding mineral amendments to soils that capture CO2 geochemically. CO2 can also be removed through a process known as Direct Air Capture (DAC) using engineered chemical and mechanical devices.
I got involved with a DAC process known as Carbon Blade (https://www.carbon-blade.com/) when approached by a former colleague from the DOE lab as part of a team competing for the carbon removal XPRIZE. We did pretty well, finishing in the top 60 out of 1,300 entrants, and we decided to form a company to commercialize the technology. The captured carbon must be kept isolated or sequestered from the atmosphere for at least a century and the longer the better. It can be stored underground as a gas or in solution, or at the surface in solid form, like the carbonate minerals in limestone.
According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some 730 billion metric tons (730 gigatons) of carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere by the end of the 21st Century to bring GHG concentrations down to pre-industrial levels and stabilize the climate. If we start removing 10 gigatons per year in 2030 and increase this to 20 gigatons per year by 2050, we should reach the end-of-century goal. Around four million Carbon Blade units will remove one gigaton of CO2 per year. Nine other DAC companies removing the same amount will achieve 10 gigatons per year. It sounds formidable and it is, but it is not impossible.
No one should give up hope. Congress has passed and the President has signed the Inflation Reduction Act that, among other things, contains $369 billion in spending over ten years to combat climate change. The bill includes subsidies for clean energy projects, supports climate-related research and development, and provides incentives for consumers to adopt clean energy technology. Some environmental activists have criticized it for not doing enough, but everyone agrees it's at least a start and a huge improvement over what we had before, which was essentially nothing.
My recent experience working with renewable energy and carbon dioxide removal has made me aware that a lot of really smart and very dedicated people are working hard to solve both the energy and climate crises. It will take some time, but not a huge amount of time. Everyone working on these things knows that there is a looming deadline, and that we can’t be lackadaisical about this. Many people are pushing hard. I think we will see significant progress over the next decade.
It is important to remember that previous generations faced existential threats as bad as climate change. The first half of the 20th Century featured the Great Depression sandwiched in between two very brutal world wars. These events alone or in combination could have destroyed civilization, but they did not. People adjusted, adapted, and displayed resilience.
The last world war was followed by a hair-trigger Cold War nuclear standoff that lasted for decades and could have destroyed all life on Earth, but it did not. However, it did come damned close at least once. I lived through the Cuban missile crisis as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, and the one thing I remember about it is that my parents were scared. When you’re a kid, your parents seem fearless. To see them really frightened by the television newscasts made more of an impression on me than anything else. As an industrial city, Cleveland was certainly a prime Soviet target. Watching my father try to figure out how to seal off our suburban basement against fallout was something I’ll never forget. Fortunately for us all, Khrushchev and Kennedy worked things out and humanity survived. Looking back on it now through the lens of history, it is apparent that yes, we should have been frightened. In fact, we should have been terrified. This is probably the closest the world has ever come to a full-scale nuclear war, and if not for a couple of fateful decisions made by a handful of critical people on both sides that could easily have gone the other way humans would have loosed hellfire upon the world.
It's okay to be concerned and maybe a bit scared about the future. It is understandable that people are frightened about the climate crisis, but they should also realize that their fears affect those around them, especially those who look up to them. Professional climate scientists and adult activists often face similar anxieties. It is frustrating to see the world going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks (as Radar O’Reilly used to say on MASH) from a self-induced problem that we know can be fixed if people would only act on it. Many scientists cope by turning to what is called a “sense of agency.” That means seeing a path forward, even if it is narrow and dimly-lit, and doing what you can to move along it. My sense of agency was to write a book that explains the science behind the climate crisis to the general public. For others, it might be community organizing, advocating for renewable energy or attending protests. One of my friends started a company that builds small wind turbines to independently power remote villages. Another has been working on developing geothermal resources in Africa to help the emerging economies there use carbon-free energy sources from the start. Still another invented an inexpensive process to remove carbon dioxide from the air. This is agency.
Turning to agency instead of just fretting about climate can convert the energy of fear into the energy of action, and it can also reassure others. Writing to your political leaders to deal with the climate crisis may not be as dramatic as my father trying to seal off our basement from possible fallout, but it will probably be a lot more effective.
A recent study on climate anxiety among children and young people found that government inaction on climate change has resulted in widespread psychological distress among the youngest members of society*. The survey of 10,000 young people, ages 16 to 25 across ten countries found that increased anxiety over the fate of the planet was strongly related to perceived government inaction. Over half (56%) of young people think humanity is doomed. Nearly 60 percent are very worried or extremely worried about the future and more than 45 percent said concerns about the climate affected their daily lives. Three-quarters of respondents see the future as frightening, while two-thirds report feeling sad, afraid and anxious. They feel abandoned, betrayed, or ignored by politicians and adults, and more than half said governments are not doing enough. People are holding off on getting married, having kids, buying houses, and just living life. A little anxiety is a good motivator. Too much of it pushes people into despair and feelings of hopelessness. There is a future, but if we want it sustainable and livable, we have to work for it. All of us.
The young people of today who are giving up on the future need to know that climate CAN be fixed. Technology got us into this crisis, and technology will get us out. I firmly believe that the future will be more utopian than dystopian, but we need to push it in that direction. Clever thinking and innovation have saved humanity from great dangers in the past, and there is a lot of clever thinking and innovation being applied to the climate crisis. Unlike some of the other crises, we know how to fix this one. The key is changing “it can be fixed” into “it will be fixed.” We need a strong dose of determination and stubbornness. Instead of sitting around wringing our hands in despair, let’s get to work.
Extracted in part from Energy Futures: The Story of Fossil Fuel, Greenhouse Gas, and Climate Change by Daniel J. Soeder, published by Springer Nature, Cham, Switzerland, 2022, ISBN: 978-3-031-15380-8; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-15381-5; 296 pages
*Marks, E., Hickman, C., Pihkala, P., et al., 2021, Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. The Lancet, preprint, 23 p., posted: 7 Sep 2021; available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955
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Dan is a research geologist and principal at Soeder Geoscience LLC with 35 years of experience in oil and gas development, environmental studies, groundwater hydrology, subsurface carbon dioxide storage, and high-level radioactive waste isolation.